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Grace: Some thoughts on Les Miserables.

The story of Les Miserables twists and turns over decades, but ultimately I believe that it is a study of two people, with two very different world views.

The first is Jean Valjean, a man who has served nineteen years hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her sick child, upon release he has to present his papers everywhere he goes, and his identity is still that of a criminal –even on release.

The other Javier, also came from nothing, born into poverty who has worked his way up in life to become a captain in the guards, he is law abiding and morally upright, the uniforms he wears and the role he has makes him feel (and others treat him) as an upstanding and moral citizen. Javier would probably call himself a Christian believing that being ‘a good person’ was the same as being a Christian!

At the start you’d think the ‘goody’ must be Javier, as Valjean is an angry man, who robs and steels.

He ends up knocking on the door of the house of the Bishop desperate for food, the Bishop welcomes him into his home, treats him with love, eats with him and lets him stay the night.

In the early morning Valjean robs the Bishop steeling much of his silver, and runs off and is caught and brought back to the Bishop. The Bishop, greets him warmly, and told the captain of the guards that the silver Valjean has was a gift from him, and then he took the candlesticks from the mantelpiece and gave these to Valjean as well, saying that he (the Bishop) had bought his (Valjean’s) soul for God.

We stopped here yesterday both in our morning service and later in our alternative worship time, and explored this amazing parable of grace.

We thought of the four responses the Bishop could have had:
1) He could have had vengeance –“how dare you steel from me “said whilst kicking him!
2) Or perhaps could have legitimately had justice –and seen Valjean returned to prison-.
3) Or he could have been merciful let Valjean go without pressing charges.
4) He choose radical grace, he gave Valjean what he did not deserve! It was unearned goodness and kindness.

What of us? I thought about myself and I know we all have a tendancy to what revenge/justice when we have been wronged, but when we have done something wrong we want mercy/grace.

This is one of those cross-road moments for Jalvean, indeed the story could be argued is a series of mini morality plays about how we respond in those defining moments of our lives.

There are plenty of other defining moments in Les Miserables.

-> What does Valjean do when there is a fight at the workshop, and he sacks a girl who he thinks is the perpetrator (who because of his actions ends up decending into horrific poverty, prostitution and then death).

-> Valjean is asked to seek out a child and ensure she is cared for.

-> A man is arrested and charged with being Jean Valjean, does the real Valjean let him suffer in his place or does he free him at great personal cost.

-> When Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javier at the baracades, which would be both a chance for revenge and also preserve his safety.

-> When Javier has an opportunity to arrest Valjean but in doing so the man he is carrying to hospital/freedom would surely die.

Yet life is made up of defining moments, maybe not perhaps as major as these, but we all have the opportunity to practice grace at times.

I am working for an organisation called SleepSafe in Bournemouth which provides a safe place for the homeless to sleep (and feeds them too) most recently we have been at the Salvation Army in Winton. On their walls in almost every room they have their strap-line “Grace is practiced here”, we all have –each day- opportunities to practice grace. Indeed hypothetical grace is of no use to anyone, empty rhetoric grace benefits no-one. Yet the real thing changes lives, many other peoples lives are transformed through Valjeans life, he was a recipient of grace that “gives away that which he has received”.

I was struck by the words of Jesus to the woman that washes his feet and anoints him “those who have been forgiven little, love little; but those who have been forgiven much love much” –the problem is many of us have forgotten how gracious God has been to us, we have begun to become more like Javier who is proud of his righteousness, rather like the older brother in the story we have called the prodigal son.

Another film that Les Miserables reminds me of is the rather cheesey “play it forward” which explores the ripple effects that can happen with random acts of kindness, and as we pondered the Bishops generousity we were challenged both to think about what extravagance might look like in generousity and kindness.

For me, the story is a challenge about who we would be within this story, will we be Valjean embodying grace with great courage and bravery (the one who is technically a ‘criminal’) or the law enforcement officer Javier who is law-abiding, rule-keeping and lacking in compassion and kindness. We think of the choice the people were given at Easter Barabbas or Jesus, but actually the choice was really between Caiaphas (the high priest, a Pharisee and a religious man) or Jesus.

At the start of the new year perhaps we need a motto? My suggestion would be “choose grace” –there are lots of opportunities each day to choose grace, yet often we fail to do so, and become unflexible and religious.

I remember a quote which says: “religion is as helpful as throwing a drowning man BOTH ends of the rope”.

Let’s be people who choose grace and transform lives.

Let’s be people that do not just choose the right things, and follow good ideas (important though that is) but rather who we are is as important as what you do, because who you are will effect what you do!

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Wesley, Whitefield, Cennick and us.

As part of my mission tour I wanted to pray and preach on Hanham Mount which was in my previous parish in Bristol, for me it is what the Celtic Christians called ‘a thin place’ somewhere that God can be encountered easily. It is a place of history with George Whitefield, John Wesley and Moravian John Cennick all having preached to the miners of KIngswood here in the eighteenth century, and seen God move mightily in their lives many people.

Kingswood was historically notorious for its unruliness and violence. There was a gang,called the Cock Road Gang, who were pretty infamous for their violence and thuggery, local legend has that on one occasion there was a raid in Bristol, where much silver was purloined, and the robbers gave everyone in Kingswood an item of silver to implicate the entire community so no one would snitch on the thieves.

When we were launching Street Pastors I found a report talking about drunken brawls and lewdness in the town all of which more or less stopped completely when the revival began to take hold locally and sweep the nation, I used to pray “God you have done it here before, and Lord we ask you to do it again here in our day”. The Church which is now the congregational Church is rumoured to have built a hurried balcony in their building to accommodate all those people who decided to come en-masse to the chapel such was the passion people had to hear and encounter God and his word. I remember working for a Church in York which told visitors that in the days of the revival people would smash the windows of the Church simply to hear the words of the preacher (ironic now as most of us don’t even down load talks for free on our phones!)

in the eighteenth century Kingswood was considered wild and lawless (and some are a bit sneery about it now it the twenty first century too!), many considered it a ‘no go area’ and certainly many people would have assumed that the miners would not be interested in religion. Yet for some the reputation of the Kingwood miners posed a challenge, if the gospel is true (which we believe it is) then it will work anywhere, including Kingswood, there were reports of brave and zealous Baptists swimming up the river to Hanham to preach to the miners, but largely unsuccessfully until George Whitefield began his field preaching at Hanham mount. Whitefield was a natural performer with a dooming voice and passionate oratory, and managed to gather a regular crowd to listen to him and others, he was also one of the first to invite slaves to hear the gospel message (even though he was, unlike Wesley, an advocate of the slave trade). Wesley took over from Whitefield when he was offered a preaching opportunities in America.

We know that Wesley on many occasions here at Hanham Mount amongst other places in Bristol, and it was here in this city that Wesley condemned the slave trade, urging Christians to join him in boycott sugar and rum that were the produce of slave labour, I wonder if it was here on Hanham mount that Wesley denounced slavery?

Hanham Mount is also known for John Cennick’s ministry starting here, John Cennick was called “the walking Bible” due to his encyclopedic knowledge of scripture and also known as “the forgotten evangelist” as he is somewhat eclipsed by Wesley and Whitefield. Cennick was an admirer of Wesley and Whitefield and -at Wesley’s suggestion- became a school teacher here in Kingswood. On one occasion he went to hear the field preacher at Hanham Mount, but for some reason no-one appeared, and so without preparation the young Cennick began to preach the Gospel to the miners, and this started a career as an itinerent preacher, hymn-writer and Church planter, who had planted over forty Churches by the time he died prematurely in 1755 aged just 37.

So a place pulsating with history, and there is something of feeling like that great crowd of witnesses cheering us on, passing on the batton to see our generation reached and transformed by God like he did with their generation.

Standing on this mount as a stop in my tour I wondered what they would make of my little journey, I suspected they would probably laugh and call me a ‘light weight’, but their energy, persistance and on-going tenacity excites me. I also noticed that we talk about planting a Church, often which plateau around thirty people, yet these guys planted Churches and were a movement. I pondered again on our call to seek first the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ promise that he would build his Church. I wondered whether we have reduced our vision and expectancy of God? I wonder too whether when we were called to be pioneers we have become settlers? Each time we pioneer again is costly and exhausting, starting again can feel discouraging and staying and enjoying something you helped create can feel much more appealing, and yet I believe the Holy Spirit is a restless God calling us not to settle but to keep on breaking new ground and rising to the next challenge; Wesley, Whitefield and Cennick were pioneeers but they were not settlers, they kept on and on breaking new ground and doing the new thing and through their faithful obidience many people came to a life transforming faith in Christ Jesus.

I thought too about how these three incredible evangelists were friends, although they did have some very public disagreements over theology and practice, but I thought afresh about the people we hang around with shape us, our peers often call us to raise our game, dreamers inspire other people, visionaries stretch our prophetic imagination and I believe hearing and heeding -being obidience to the Holy Spirit- is contageous, causing other people to respond with a “yes to God”.

So, standing on the spot where these three preached and proclaimed Christ, with other friends around me, I wondered what would our legacy be? Longing that we in some (albeit small part) might see something of a returning to Christ in this nation.

Gradually people started to appear, people keen to pray for Bristol and our nation, people up for hearing a bit about a crazy fool traveling from Cornwall to Carlilse, and wondering what wacky ideas the Holy Spirit might have been whispering in the ears of those who were standing with us on a spot where history and eternal destinies were changed!

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Church in the Car Park… (Bristol)

The sun was shining and it was a lovely day, I was back in Bristol in my former Parish of Kingswood, I had been asked to do a talk at a friend’s Church -Bourne Christian Centre- who were doing a sizzle in the car park, giving out free burgers and hot-dogs with plenty of fun fayre type events and things for all the family, there were puppets, choirs and face-painting to which they had invited the local community to come and join them.

They were reaching out with an extravagant generosity that was an expression of love from the people of Bourne Christian Centre, but more than that, was showing something of the love of God that reaches out and says “you are welcome and wanted by God”.

I thought about this wonderful Church, who sadly a few years early had been rocked by a painful split, which also saw their income greatly diminish too, they could have bemoaned their troubles, and focused more and more inwards developing a victim mentality, but instead, despite the numerous challenges, they are thriving as a community with a renewed passion for Christ and mission to their community.

There was a wonderful buzz, and great to see many faces I knew, both people from my friends Church (this neighbouring Church was often a real source of blessing and encouragement to me) familiar faces from the local community, and some friends from my previous Church too. I was given lots of hugs and felt very affirmed which was good as I felt a bit nervous about coming back, returning back to a place you previously served brings both the joyous memories of wonderful people and fruitful Kingdom action and also the sadness of disappointments and relationships that were painful.

It was great to chat to so many people, I began to wonder that although it is great to have an opportunity to preach a message, actually I sensed that God had already been at work in the conversations I was able to have with friends old and new already. It was lovely chatting to old friends and some of the conversations were faith related and others life related and that felt okay. The whole event had a bit of a carnival or party atmosphere and I thought “Christians should be good at throwing parties!”

Yet I remembered a similar event we did down the road at Holy Trinity where we gave out lots of freshly cooked burgers, again lots of opportunities to talk to people from the community, fringe Church members and the regular crowd. I got ranted at by one of the long standing members that she “didn’t give to this Church for her money to be wasted on burgers” (actually they had been donated by an ‘anonymous saint’ but she did not stop around long enough to listen to that bit).

I believe that generosity and hospitality are at the forefront of mission and this Church was generously blessing their community with a Christ-like extravagance that reminded me of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet cracking open a jar of pure nard worth about a years’ wages, or the Father who runs to meet his son, puts shoes on his feet, ring on his finger, a robe around his shoulders and killed the fatted calf. A decent party is not one that skimps and saves, waters down the orange squash until it is barely drinkable, no instead a party is a time for abundance and generosity (just think how much wine there would have been after Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana). Yet too often Christians have a poverty mindset and live out a scarcity narrative.

During my curacy in a place called Bemerton in Salisbury, I learned a lot about a previous Rector there called George Herbert, who wrote many amazing hymns and poems, one of them was called “love bade me welcome” which talk of God’s welcome extended to us (humanity), yet we and yet we draw back because of our sin and shame, but still being invited in to feast at the banquet of fine food.

“Okay Andy, you’re on after the puppets” said my friend Jon stirring me from my day-dream, I laughed and made a joke of “the puppet followed by the muppet!” I looked around, my stomach knotting a bit as hoping what I had prepared would resonate with the people here, I wanted them not only to feel loved and welcomed but wanted them to consider accepting Jesus and the message of the cross. Knowing Kingswood as an ‘old school’ working class, slightly old fashioned blue collar parish, where asking for help was not something that comes readily to people here. To illustrate this, I had two donuts on very long sticks with forks on the end which my volunteers had to try and eat. It is impossible, the sticks are too long, the only way it can work is if someone else feeds you their donut and you feed them yours! As expected the volunteers struggled on their own for ages before we admit that they could not manage, and needed some help!

“Are we trying to struggle through life on our own” I asked, I spoke simply that I believe we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts, we can’t managed to be good enough for God by our human ooomph, Rather than trying to reach up to a God beyond our grasp, Christianity is about a God who reaches down to us in Jesus who meets us in our mess. Jesus who does what we could not do on our own which is to restore our broken relationship with God, a free-gift for us all to accept, if we are willing to surrender and accept what Jesus has done for us.

It was a simple message but one I think people got, I left with the challenge of God there wanting to be invited to come into our lives, would we open our hearts and minds to God and receive him?

As I shared this message with all the passion I could, I was reminded of another time I did Church in the car park in Kingswood, this car park was on the edge of Southey Park, and was next door to where we were to plant our new Church, All Souls’, yet we did not manage to get the keys as early as we hoped so a few of us on the Sunday we had planned as our first Sunday, wandered around the area praying, feeling very daunted by the huge challenge of planting a new Church with a tiny team and barely any money (and some very real opposition from within the Church) -I know my prayer that Sunday was along the lines of “God, help us”- we gathered after our prayers around my battered old car, and on an old wall paper paste table, I (with slightly trembling hands) shared communion with the couple of friends who were standing with us in this venture, remembering the extravagance of God in giving of himself to step down into our world, to live, to suffer and to die upon the cross for us. Communion says to God we come with empty hands, no bargaining chips, totally dependent on God our only hope, but the amazing truth is we are also coming before our loving heavenly father, awesomely generous in all things -including salvation- that knows how to give good gifts to his children, when we come in faith to God we do not leave empty handed.

After the event had finished, I drove past another of my former Churches, and saw they were doing a BBQ for the new residents who had moved into the new development around the Church. I remembered with that pang of an unpleasant memory about how I couldn’t get anyone from the Church to go to the meeting about the potential new developments, clearly some within the congregation had had a change of heart, and for a second I felt a twinge of jealousy “why would they rally around and help with mission for a new vicar and yet didn’t help me?” The problem with returning to a place with mixed memories is that we do not just remember the joys, I have a bad habit of picking the scabs from past hurts too.

Perhaps I need to heed my own words about surrendering to Jesus and let him have the joys and the sorrows of the eight years I served as Pioneer Minister here, and allow him to use the bits I got right and trust his grace, love and goodness for the parts I got wrong; to allow him to encourage me with the blessings and trust him with my wounds too.

Interestingly God had taken me on this missional pilgrimage which involved going back to Bristol with him, sometimes we have to re-visit those places of pain with our loving heavenly parent to lay down at the foot of the cross the things that have hurt us and now are holding us back. A facebook meme appeared on my phone as I typed these words about not being able to pick what God has for us for today (and tomorrow) if our hands, head and heart are still full of the junk of yesterday.

I pulled the car over by the side of the road and prayed quietly.

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Mandela and Me, A blog on forgiveness…

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” –This awesome quote was spoken by Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison after 28 years of (often brutal) incarsaration. Mandela was elected as the first black President of South Africa, yet rather than enacting victors vengeance upon the former governments he chose reconciliation and peace.

This was unpopular amongst many black South Africans who wanted revenge and to “give the white man a taste of his own medicine”, establishing with his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission”.

We need truth to heal, things brought from the darkness into the light, and people need to hear an apology to enable reconciliation to happen.

This committee was incredibly gracious, granting amnastes to many from the previous administration, most notably Adriaan Vlok, a racist government minister who had overseen an attempt to bomb the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches and planned the assassination of some senior anti-aparthied activists, later as a forgiven person he ended up publically apologising and washing the feet of Frank Chikane who Vlok had tried to assassinate.

I read these stories and I am inspired by the grace, mercy and forgiveness shown by heroes of the faith such as Mandela and Tutu, and yet I look at my life, particularly some of the nastiness my family and I endured from some of the Churchy folk in my last parish, and I struggle to forgive and that there is bitterness lurking within my heart.

I think all of us know that forgiveness is a good idea, that is until we have something we have to forgive and then it feels really tough.

Forgiveness too is an on-going process, a continual journey, a choice to live not in resentment and vindictiveness. I can forgive momentarily but when I return to the offence in my mind it is like a scab that can be made to bleed again.

There are numerous truisms that echo around social media reminding us that “resentment is the acid the destroys that which it is carried in” or “bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. Yet, like all such clichés forgiveness is easier said than done, and something I found really hard, especially people who really hurt and betrayed me, or were deliberately nasty to my wife.

After we had been back in Poole a little while I was sat on the sofa with my wife, and somehow some of the pain of the last parish came up, “you still really hate XXX don’t you” she said, she was right, although I was ashamed to admit it.

This made me feel pretty wretched. Stories like that of Mandela and Tutu just made me feel really condemned, I felt like a really rubbish Christian, but the truth is I had not forgiven this person, not really and truly.

I knew what I ought to do, but inside I was really hurt and agrieved at what I felt was unjust, forgiveness sometimes can feel like justice denied. I was talking to someone who was around Christian circles and was talking about Karma, I gently questioned this, and she said “sometimes grace feels too difficult at times, especially when you are angry!” -She actually was very profound, grace is getting what we do not deserve, we like to be a recipient of grace but a dispenser of it to those who have hurt us feels at times like a challenge that is beyond our human capabilities -although not beyond the capacity of the Holy Spirit!

I can be quite good at forgiving if it feels like people are genuinely remorseful and their reprentence feels genuine, but if there is no word of sorry, and you’re not sure if they will do it again, then I really struggle.

Allana sent me a thing on facebook (we are a romantic pair aren’t we!) which said: “Life is easier when you accept the apology you never received”, sometimes we do not get an apology nor even the person ever admitting that they did anything wrong.

Yet sometimes we need to express our pain and frustration and hurt, when often we get shut up, literally in the case of Mandela.

Mandela got no apology, well perhaps one twenty eight years too late, I wonder the battle that must have gone on in his heart and mind those long nights locked in his cell at Robbin Island.

St. John of the Cross talks of the ‘dark night of the soul’ where we have to come face to face with all we would rather avoid within ourselves and choose how we respond.

I discovered that this was something I had to leave at the cross of Christ –the problem was I kept retrieving it. Yet, rather than feeling guilty, I have discovered that God is extremely patient with me, and walks with me as I try again to walk in forgiveness and freedom.

In this I have come to realise that healing and restoration is rarely a quick fix but an on-going choice, something I have come to believe is impossible in our own strength but a miracle of God’s work in us.

Too often we feel like somehow forgiving people is ‘letting them off’ and that is somehow saying that “what they did, and how it made us feel, did not matter”.

I think this is a false premise of forgiveness, rather it stems from knowing that God says that he loves us and wants us to be free. God cares about our mental health and our well-being, helps us to allow us to put pain behind us rather than let it blight our future.

Unforgiveness can cripple our mental health and damage our relationship with God. Yet, in admitting our pain and hurt, naming it, being honest with our feelings, and bringing it into the light, we allow God to come into those places and bring his healing balm.

I also discovered that existing resentments is like a magnet for attracting more and more pain and bitterness.

Forgiveness is costly and difficult, but when we forgive we glimpse something of the character of God who forgives us.

I wonder if one of the greatest obsticles to the growth of the Kingdom is the backlog of unforgiveness in both individuals and corporately, indeed the adage that ‘hurt people, hurt people’ is often true, and unforgiveness can become never ending cycles, with people never sorting out their baggage with God or one another.

We know that sadly individuals and groups do not always behave well towards one another: egos, entitlement and empires can rise up, misunderstanding occur, people have different priorites and view points, characters clash, human-beings are flawed and sinful, and things are sometimes handled badly.

Nor is forgiveness placing ourselves back in unhealthy or damaging relationships, and the new relationship might have to look different, but we can still call an amnasty and end hostility, both outward and internally within us.

Yet, (and although not always possible), I believe God does not just want to see a peace treaty brokered but instead a miracle of grace and reconciliation in our lives. I thought about repair within the human body, and the place that which was broken the new join becomes the strongest part.

Another display of unity and restoration came in the unlikely guise of the Springbok Rugby, often seen as a “White Mans Sport”, but Mandela wore their shirt and supported the national team in the World Cup 1995, and forging a friendship with the white Captain François Pienaar who asked Mandela to be the Godfather of two of his children.

Many of the black south africans wanted Mandela to ban the games, or change the top, they certainly never expected him to wear it himself, this symbol of aparthied become an emblum of reconciliation.

This is a gesture of the person representing the wronged community reaching out, not just half way, but meeting the other where they were at.

I believe the local Church in many areas, like South Africa, needs its own truth and reconciliation commission, resentments left unspoken often seeth within us, and communities are far from united.

Sometimes, we need to meet our Christian brothers and sisters where they are at, and sometimes even make sacrifices and do the harder and tougher thing. What might wearing the Springbok top be for your Christian Community?

In my previous parish of Kingswood a revival had taken place under John Wesley, and yet all the way up the high street there were different churches of a slightly different flavour baring testimony to Christians falling out.

More recently, I have been sadden to hear of a larger Church ‘guzzumping’ a smaller one with running a project that they had been working on; a Vicar decided to run an event at the same time as the Church down the road was doing the same thing (even nicked the wording on their flyer!); Others can send one another combatative emails or letters and it is so sad to see the bits of the body of Christ bump, burn and bruise each other.

How can we be like Nelson Mandela’s and live in a different way, practicing forgiveness, grace and Kingdom generousity?

As with all relationships it presents a challenge as it requires and is reliant on someone elses response, but if we see relationships as a bridge, the question is have we reached out beyond our half with outstretched hand to their bit?

I was hugely challenged by reading the story of Corrie Ten Boom, who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazi’s for hiding Jews. At this camp her sister, Betsy, died.

As she was talking about forgiveness and reconciliation, she came face to face with a guard from the camp. In an instant all these awful memories resurfaced. Yet she prayed that God would give her the strength to forgive, and she held out her arm to this man, and she said as they shook hands she felt the power of God flow through her.

It is so, so, painful at times both for us individually and corporately to forgive, and even harder to stretch out our hand to those who have caused us pain, I am a work in progress with this (far from sorted), but I do believe it is the only hope for us as individuals, for the Church and for the World.

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Divine Alchemy

In my former parish there was an area called “Made Forever” where historically the miners of Kingswood discovered a really thick seam of coal unseen from above and unexpectedly discovered, the Miners said: “We are ‘Made Forever’” –hence the name!

Discovering treasure bellow the surface is part of the call of the Christian in partnership with our God.

When I was at theological college we all had roles and jobs within the community, mine was heading up the youth and children’s work that happened during our college worship times (which was a great job because I love doing youth and kids work and chapel services were normally pretty dire!). I used to joke that “in our groups you may well have the future Archbishop of Canterbury amongst the kids we serve, so you had better make sure you are nice to her!” (See what I did there!?)

We do not know what God is doing in the lives of those around us, we do not know the impact we are having, nor do we know the treasure within the lives of whom we encounter.

As I was thinking about my time in Cornwall and Devon I was inspired by the idea of discovering the gold, the treasure, in those around us.

As I thought about mission, and who we reach, I was reminded of a preacher called Mordecai Fowler Ham, not a house-hold name, but he had a reputation as a firey preacher, and a couple of girls wanted to see him and got a bit of a group together, but they needed someone to drive them there, so they asked a lad called Bill who had a truck. That lad was Billy Graham, who that evening gave his life to Jesus.

Through Billy Graham millions of people have heard the good news of Jesus Christ, and it all started with asking a farm lad a favour –would he mind driving a van for a few friends?

Perhaps the next Billy Graham might be saying that he met some a couple of random guys in a Park in Exeter? Or chatting to the Prians Angels who gave him a Bible (which he stuffed down his trousers)

We do not know what God might do with the people we meet and speak too, which I think is really exciting.

As I thought of rising up faithful followers of Jesus, I thought of my own life and thought of the number of people who had taken a risk on me, who had invested in me, challenged and encouraged me; I know that I needs on-going renewal, and as a broken and cracked person I need restoration. I love the idea of the Japanese who have a process called Kintsungi whereby they mend broken pots with melted gold that increases their beauty and their value.

I also thought of the work of God sanctifying each one of us, taking the Gold in our lives –the good stuff of his Kingdom- and purifying it –sifting our the dross. With God wanting to work through us we need to realise that he will also work in us, his spirit is described in scripture as a refiners fire, making us more like Jesus Christ in our character.

As I thought about reaching people, raises them up, restoring and refining them and releasing them with others to come together and transform the world.

Yet in transforming the world this is not a solitary activity, but rather the family business, we are (to use a phrase used by one of my former young people) “Team God” –God’s people together seeking to live out the Kingdom of God where-ever we go.

This challenges us as individuals to get ourselves ‘match-fit’ and on the front-line, but we are also challenged in how we live and work with other Christians corporately. Reminded of the acronym of TEAM –Together Everybody Achieves More- that God is at work through his people in reaching out, rising up, restoring, renewing and refining; as we long to see our returned to Christ.

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Sharing a Monastic journey,

My last activity in Derby was to share something of our New Monastic Vision with the people from St. Thomas’s. Simon said “it is good for them to hear someone else talking about exploring these things too as it is not just us doing our own crazy thing here!” I laughed and said: “Always good to know there are other nutters about!”

So, as we ate together around the table, we chatted and I began tell the story of what has happened in Poole, before handing over to Simon to see if he could subtly blend our chat into a call to receive afresh the elements of communion, reminding us of Christ whose body was broken and blood was shed for us.

I spoke about how following Chris Harwood’s recommendation I met up with Mark Philips, and ended up being invited to speak at one of their Sunday Morning Café Church services with a small number of older people. At the end of the service Mark pressed a key into my hand and said “use here anytime you want for whatever you need!” –this deeply touched me as I was exploring what God was calling me to and where he was calling me, I felt pretty unwanted and like I no longer fitted into how Poole had become; yet here was someone –who despite not knowing the journey was keen to bless me, encourage me and invest in me which was an act of kindness that touched me very deeply.

Mark gave voice to his heart once as “longing to open the first monastery in one hundred years” a community in which all are welcome, where there is practical help –with the hungry fed, clothed and given shelter, where addictions are broken and people are healed by love- in a place which is both prayerful and practical.

I had enjoyed wandering around Parkstone United Reformed Church centre (known as PURC –although I was mortified when my dog Teddy wee’d on the floor whilst I was having the tour! The centre is a bit quirky and not always neat and tidy with lots of interesting Christian books everywhere, but is teaming with life with lots of communities using the building but unlike many centres it feels like they have a real relationship with Mark and the building. This might be because Mark is always around the centre mending something in and greets you with huge warmth and says “fancy a brew!” –and through Mark’s warm nature and enthusiastic tea-drinking he has changed many people’s lives.

Mark offers radical hospitality to all who visit, it is not always from bone china cups with matching saucers, but it feels like family, come as you are and hope you can accept us as we are. Each day the community stops and eats together, and even if you are just visiting when food is ready you’re welcome to join in, many of the volunteers who came to various projects have many different needs so sometimes conversations can become a little random, and there is normally some banter, but if I am free at a lunchtime this is one of my favourite places to be.

The two words we have focused on are: ”Activism” and “Contemplation” as if you just run around doing stuff you eventually burn out, and if you just sit around contemplating you just get lethargic, but learning to harness the benefits of both elements forces us to become ‘reflective practioners’, where contemplation refining the activities we do so that our energies are used most fruitfully, and our activism brings practical reality and physical embodiment to our contemplation’s. Going deeper enables us to reach out further, and we reach out further so we can go deeper.

Yet what Mark and I both share is that both of us have got burned by exhaustion and singed by burn-out, seeking to discover a new way of being, of wanting to not just become busier and busier but to go deeper in our relationship with God and discovering new practices to refresh and sustain us. Each day we pray together at the start of the day with a morning prayer, and often with a lunchtime prayer too. As both of us have previously struggled to make time for retreats and reflections we now stop each month for a day and take some cars up to nearby Dorchester to a Friary there with whoever wants to come along with us (sometimes some interesting mix of people) and just allow God some space and time to encounter us, speak to us, and change us.

Many of the people who come are some of the volunteers from life works which is a charity that helps out those who –for whatever reason- need a bit of extra support, some struggling with addictions, some recently released from prison and others with mental health issues, and I wondered if they just enjoyed coming as it was a day that was different from their normal work day? This was until the second or third time we visited and Mark suggested we closed our time together with a prayer, a couple of the guys shared what God had been doing, and a couple prayed and I was fighting back the tears, clearly God was doing something real, deep and beautiful in their lives, and I had been incredibly judgemental in selling that short.

One of the things many of us –including Mark and I- have been a rule or rhythm of life, some shared values to live by and to hold one another accountable to, and as we began to talk we ended up wondering if we really asked ourselves about how we could practically make real and achievable changes in our daily lives to better reflect the values of the Kingdom of God.

As we develop a rule of life we seek to instil in ourselves practices that we could hold one another accountable too, recently a few of us have begun reading the Bible together –and sharing life together- and posting what we think or were challenged by each day on whatsapp.

It was nearly Christmas and our first event was “Doing December Differently” where we explored issues around trade-ethics, localism, sustainability, stewardship and we invited many local groups that were implementing positive different ways of celebrating Christmas, which was not only a lot of fun and helped network together Christians and community activists, but has continued to be an on-going question exploring about doing Lent (how about keeping Lent local?), Advent (how about a reverse calendar putting something in for a foodbank each day) (or choosing not to wrap our presents in plastic that ends in landfill or buy crackers that just end in the bin), Harvest (where perhaps we can look at reclaimed food being used to feed the hungry), Easter and Pentecost differently in practical ways.

As we have set out on this journey we have inadvertently discovered that it has attracted people to us and the journey we feel called to, on one occasion after posting some photos of an event a mum facebooked me and said “My kids would love this, could we have an event more children focused?” which was never part of the original vision but having children with us has radically transformed the feel of us as a community, with prayer stations and acts of random kindness I have discovered that the children really encounter God through different ways of praying, and often end up sharing remarkable and thought provoking things to the adults.

Yet, it is not just Christians who have found a place to journey with alongside us, Mark’s partner Tracy, a Buddhist, has joined much of what we do, and has really brought something new, fresh and challenging to this journey, and I have found her questions and experiences from her faith have really challenged and inspired me in mine. Another guy Mike, was having lunch at Parkstone URC (or PURC as we call it) and was (with a twinkle in his eye) talking about how he once had past-life regression and had been a Franciscan Friar in a past century! Which led to an interesting conversation, followed by a bang on my door and a suggestion of an event “contemplation and conversation” where we share silence and contemplation together, thinking and exploring some ideas, before chatting together and sharing our thoughts, he had written a mini syllabus which featured miracles, Trinity, Truth and Paradox. Here was someone who was not a Christian inviting me into conversation about some pretty big issues and topics which was an exciting opportunity that most vicars would spend a small fortune on and here it was happening for free before our eyes.

So, as I splurged all this out before the guys at St. Thomas’s I realized just how much we had done, and just how far we have come, if I had not had to talk about it to these people at St. Thom’s would I have realized how much God has already done her amongst us in Poole.

Monasticism is really just trying to work and walk together in living out your faith in Christi in all that you do, keeping accountable, and disciplined in our outlook at ethos.

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She ran her race well.

“She ran her race well!” the curate said at the start of the service.
I was staying at my friends Simon and Elizabeth Cartwright in Normanton in Derby as part of my activist pilgrimage.

On the Saturday I had done a workshop on talking about Jesus and our faith in a normal and natural way and everyone seemed chatty and upbeat. Then as we were clearing up Simon got a message on his phone, and I could tell by his face that something was very wrong. One of his congregation, a lady called Anne, who was in hospital having an operation was very ill, probably dying. I was the only person who did not know this lady but clearly she was loved as the atmosphere changed completely, everyone huddled around and they prayed for her, yet sadly later that day she passed away.

I had been speaking of being an indigenous disciple, part of the culture, community and context, and being people that grasp the opportunities God gives us, where-ever and when-ever they are. I even spoke about how sometimes they are in unlikely places.

The curate continued speaking of this ladies amazing faith and personality, about even though she had to have regular dialysis she would often talk to the other patients about her faith in Jesus with refreshing normality and warmth.

Later in the service I had the opportunity to speak briefly about the School of Mission, about our desire to see “every Christian in the UK to feel comfortable and confident I sharing their faith in Christ Jesus with deeds and words with wisdom and sensitivity under the leadership of the Holy Spirit” and it felt like this woman, Anne, who I had never met was someone who embodied this courageous missional normality with great love and sincerity. Sometimes we need role models and people who flesh out virtues, and show us how concepts and ideas look when they are actually applied to peoples’ lives and seen in ‘real life’.

As I looked around, feeling a bit of an intruder to a communities’ grief, I saw people of all ages, different races and social classes, putting their arms around each other, passing tissues and hankies around, holding hands and loving one another. “This is what Church ought to look like” I thought realizing that so often we think of healthy communities where everyone is happy and everything is sorted, but actually it is in times of hardship, pain and tragedy that often the true caliber of a community is seen. Jesus said “by this will all people know that you are my disciples that you love one another” often this verse is an uncomfortable challenge or stern rebuke as we know that we, and our communities, do not love one another as we should, but here it felt like an illustration of the truth lived out in front of my eyes.

I wondered about myself, when I die will people say of me “he ran his race well”, sadly this is a compliment that can only be used for a few special people, yet I long for this phrase to be applicable to us all.

I thought too of this lady, Anne, -who I never met- leaving this gap in the community, and thought that her legacy will live on, people will remember her, talk about her, and her story of who she was will encourage those who are here running their races to keep on going, to live out their faith in their ordinary everyday lives, grasping the opportunities to speak of Jesus. Yet wondered too, whether this Anne’s clear love for Jesus and for people was fashioned and shaped by being part of a community where clearly there was a lot of love as part of the day to day DNA of their life shared together.

I wondered if we want great evangelists to emerge perhaps we need loving, committed, healthy church families to nurture and develop them?

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